What’s Poppin’: Ghanaian music is, and has always been, diversely abundant

The present, the past and why Ghanaian pop lovers need to have a little faith in the local sound

Pop is a sonic oxymoron. Fundamentally, it takes a satisfactory nod from the masses, traditionally materialised by airplays. Most recently, it leans more to plummeting figures behind the screens of smart devices—word to streaming culture and social media. However, the ‘pop’ tag is stapled on variegated sonic textures, typically influenced by differing places and times. For example, in the Western world, R&B, Hip-Hop and adjacent forms of urban music ruled the ’90’s to early 2000’s, becoming ultra-popular music without being categorised as Pop. Recently, parts of Africa received the gift of Amapiano from South Africa in 2018, a genre whose originators had indulged in years before its increased international interest and is now a marquee pop sound from this side

Does that make sense? No, it doesn’t—it’s not meant to. Pop doesn’t either. It means different things, all at once.

Countries with rich sonic histories are often overwhelmed by this. Ghana’s musical archive tells a story of genres that carry the same “afro” foundation, flipped with genres that can keep up with its pace. Highlife, Hip-life, Azonto, Afrobeats, each a refined version of its sonic predecessor, and thus ironically, fusion-prototypes. The current Ghanaian pop terrain is ruled by Afrofusion; a formula that combines the sharpened sonic cultural identity of West Africans and pre-existing genres. In Ghana, Afrofusion’s relentless development has led to an artistic shift powered through different generational sockets.

For seasoned acts, there seems to be a unanimous effort to reach rhythmic ascension through musical risks. Churning out timeless ditties that satisfy authentic Ghanaian taste buds have earned these veterans the explorative luxury in their craft. Sarkodie emulates this. Although his artistic coat is fabricated with Hip-Hop detailing, the Rapperholic recently curated a playlist of JAMZ that illustrates his adoration for Highlife and taps in contemporary pop forms in African music, including Amapiano. It’s not a stark departure, avid Obidi followers would notice a pattern in his catalogue—he includes a pop song laced with traditional Highlife in every project, which makes his latest project something of a worthy, modern pop-inflected extension.

For other Ghanaian acts, an imminent rebirth is in motion. Transitioning from a short-lived girl-band, albeit its immense potential to a solo act in the prosperous Lynx Entertainment, MzVee owns revivals. The 10 Thirty album is a post-independence renovation of her pop arsenal with maintained musical habits like the impressive collaborative dancehall streak with Stonebwoy on the Kizzy Beat-production, “Pull Up”. Some Ghanaian acts are embarking on a journey of refinement. Stonebwoy’s fusion of R&B/Soul elements with his trademark Dancehall inclinations are key to recent releases, “Therapy” and “Gidigba”, feeding his increasingly growing global audience whilst introducing elevation in his craft to his local consumers. When it comes to 1Gad, there is no act more intentional with their sonic trajectory.

In newer pastures, the youngins are creating sonic movements. Kumasi snatched the reins of the London-New York-Chicago vehicle of drill and launched a selection of wordsmiths with punchy Twi lyrics, painting the city with a loud colour of new age rap—Asakaa. Not too far off, the drill sound was hybridised with Highlife by the Prince of the Ghetto Gospel, Black Sherif. His refreshing melancholic expression, which is splendidly elaborated on debut LP The Villain I Never Was, further monopolised this rare fusion formula. On the more alternative side of things, astounding stylistic modes are being tested via Amaarae’s bewitching blend of Alt-pop, Neo-R&B, Rap and whatever else catches her fancy.

The most delightfully surprising addition to this renaissance is the development of a new kind of artist—the tastemaker. Ghanaian producers and DJs are cementing their sonic brands by slapping them onto tunes they made on a technical basis or organised. The tastemaker-artist goes as far as the mere music-lover; entrepreneur and cultural patron Smallgod uses his extensive network and good ear for music to curate Ghanaian-Nigerian Afro-fusion marriages between artistes and producers—he builds bridges. Like DJ Khaled, his artistic tool lies in his ability to conceptualise.

Certain genres remain undefeated. The Ghanaian Gospel scene is infinite with acts, ready to lay spiritual vulnerability for pop success. Unbeknownst to many, it’s also the only genre whose structural efforts seem coordinated and rewarding. Its patrons recognise the audience’s thirst to experience the music and as a result, Accra is constantly flooded with massive signboards announcing concerts, shows and church appearances which are often seamlessly organised and filled to the brim. The aforementioned events provide intimacy between audiences and their favourite praise and worship leaders, as well as a spotlight for burgeoning acts to prove themselves in the midst of powerful vocalists with insane range.

The most remarkable feature of this genre is the substance of its craft—there’s a gospel song for every human emotion possible but mostly, the ones Ghanaians rave about. Positive affirmations on upbeat rhythm? Ghana Music Awards’ Artiste of the Year Diana Hamilton’s cruisy “Wa’sem” has you covered. Heartfelt ballads of worship? Joe Mettle‘s sweet Ga melodies on “Bo No Oni will do the trick. And what’s more, this has been happening for generations.

On the surface level, Ghana’s music terrain—secular and spiritually-inclined—seems great. The renaissance is in full session. But structurally, make nobody lie you, we dey suffer. Our ecosystem exists in weak blocks of leadership, construction, distribution and sale. If this is beginning to sound like a business essay, then we’re on the right page. Sometimes, it seems that the industry itself isn’t quite ready to admit that music, as is the recycled industry saying, is 90% business and 10% music.

At the height of Afrobeats, Ghanaians woke up. The globalisation of a sound local to their shared palettes with Nigerians meant embracing streaming culture, collaborations and international competition. However, Ghanaian music critics make innumerable comparisons to Nigeria both in artistry and in listenership. For the latter, Ghanaian consumers are often accused of not diversifying their tastes, forcing some acts to surrender their artistic integrity by actively making “mild” music that struggles to cover the same mileage as our Nigerian counterparts. It’s not all so bad. If the Ghanaian audience lap up the “mild” music, a few slots in shows and events (particularly during the Christmas season) are assured, the most traditional yet reliable means of making music-cheddar.

Now, this is where it gets a little comical. Simultaneously, the consumers call out some Ghanaian acts and industry patrons for making feeble creative efforts in their craft, pointing to Nigerian sonic wins. It’s a cycle of woo-ha in the midst of the pressure getting worser.

Regardless, the quality of Ghanaian pop music should never be doubted—not even by Ghanaians. Though it may seem that there has been a decline in the standard and quality of the terrain, the Ghanaian musical landscape has experienced prosperous pop phases. The opening years of the decade are often undeservingly overlooked during nostalgic music discussions. 2010-2014—though the phase’s flavouring dates back to 2008—boasted an exceptional streak: back-to-back modernised Hip-life anthems in trailblazing modes that are absent today. For example, the landscape included a prominence of musical groups whose brilliant club bangers competitively infiltrated the airwaves. VIP’s “I think I Like Am” aged like fine wine. As 4×4 harmonised hyperbolically sensual proclamations of awe, barfing a record amount of rear-end innuendos and puns with “World Trade Center” and “Waist and Power”, older groups like Praye and 5Five whipped up contagious dance sequences to “Angelina” and “Muje Baya”. TikTok would’ve rinsed these moments.

The success of the era is also owed to domainal takeovers. The metropolis of Tema became a reliable source for Ghanaian Hip-Hop as its newbie flow-riders such as Sarkodie, Yaa Pono, Opanka and Yaw Siki enriched the country’s rap culture. Their fiery freestyles littered across YouTube rapidly transcended to nationally-acknowledged hood chants. Interestingly, the misconception of Hip-Hop being too tight a focus leads to the underestimation of its contributors’ artistic flexibility. Acts like D(r)-Cryme and Stay Jay with rap foundations strengthened their penetration into the pop scene via melodious tunes; for the former, a funky love song with a ‘twi-brofo’ title, “Kill Me Shy”, and for the latter, upbeat records like “Shashe Wo Wo” shaped by cleverly comedic story-telling that assisted in the inception of the Azonto era.

But make no mistake, subtle diss songs like “Sue” depicted the gradual ‘pop-ification’ of Hip-Hop on their terms. And the rap atmosphere was thick at the time—there were A LOT of rappers. Hip-Hop culture has a funny way of trickling down; if memory serves correctly, Ghanaian all-male secondary schools became breeding grounds for lyricists. If you were in junior or senior high in Ghana between 2011-2012, chances are you knew at least two aspiring rappers. Other promising Hip-Hop acts took larger bites of the Afro cake in their exploration of the pop terrain and ended up forging literal genres. Dansoman’s jack-of-all-musical-trades, E.L baked a selection of treats like “U Go Kill Me” and “Obuu Mo” that were integral (the former, globally and the latter locally) in manufacturing Ghana’s first major export-the Azonto era.

There was also an influx of artistic nurturers. Award-winning producer and singer-songwriter extraordinaire, Richie Mensah formed a coven of artists who constructed Afropop renditions of Western sonic trends, extra indications of the earlier dabbles into fusion-based pop. Eazzy’s “Bon Wonsem Ma Me” can be easily likened to Cassie’s “Long Way 2 Go”; bold feminist paeans that outlined dating standards on wicked flow. Along with her peers ASEM, OJ Blaq and Zigi, they laid a remakable foundation as the first generation for Lynx Entertainment, the perennial label powerhouse. It was a great feat on Richie’s part but admittedly not the first as previously made by his predecessors like the formidable production beast Appietus—a creator whose Midas-touch ‘on the mix’ stays iconic—was the ultimate talent magnet.

So perhaps, the Ghanaian pop lovers need to have a little faith in the local sound. The sonic history of the Ghanaian pop landscape mimics the life-span of a phoenix. In the words of almost every overachieving Ghanaian parent or guardian, there’s (always) room for improvement.

Lourdes Alexandra Oppong is a British-Ghanaian television presenter, radio and television production executive and copywriter. Living between London and Accra, the creative’s deep appreciation for music has led to her commentary on it, specialising in the development of Afrobeats/ Afrofusion, specific to Ghana.